Review: ‘The Pelican’ at Arcturus Theater Company

 Rare Production of Strindberg’s Pelican at Arcturus

The Pelican—a Victorian melodrama long abandoned by modern producers —has happily returned to the DC stage in a brilliantly staged one-act play. It’s now on view for just one more weekend at the Arcturus Theater Company, located in a downtown church.

Picture from left to right: David Johnson, Emily Sucher, and Ryan Carlo. Photo by T Rose.
Picture from left to right: David Johnson, Emily Sucher, and Ryan Carlo. Photo by T Rose.

Written by August Strindberg—a giant in the history of modern drama—the play got rave reviews when it marked the opening of the author’s own intimate theater in Stockholm in 1907.

The story is set in the drawing room of an elegant turn-of-the century apartment, where a vain and narcissistic mother (Wendy Wilmer, played with shrewd villainy) is pitted against her  children, Frederick, a law student (David Johnson), and Gerda, a docile bride (Emily Sucher).

Other foes include a dead but unmourned husband, a saucy housemaid who knows too much (Jamie Crowne) and Axel, a good-looking cad played with sinister aplomb by Ryan Carlo.

The cad, unfortunately, has just married Gerda. Their arrival home from a honeymoon cut short sets the action afoot.

Soon, we learn that all is not as it seems.  The cad is more than seductive-looking. And jokes about being starved and frozen are not simply metaphors for the denial of love. This family lives on watery porridge and shivers underneath sweaters and shawls.

Although wildly successful when it was first unveiled, The Pelican—so named for the bird who was mistakenly believed to feed its own blood to its offspring—might seem a bit far-fetched now, but that’s only because of the trappings.  TV today is full of stories of parents who neglect or abuse their children. The only difference is that nowadays the children are often found dead.

Not so in the hands of Strindberg and this talented company. The two villains—the scheming mother, who is as wicked and conniving as Lady Macbeth, and Axel, whose swagger at first disguises his sinister character—literally dance into, and out of, each other’s arms. Their scenes are riveting.

So, too, are the passionate duo of brother and sister, lamenting their stunted growth and lost opportunities at the hands of a manipulative parent. And the verbal sword-play between the Mother and the Maid is sharp and funny.

Of course, the star of the play—invisible except for a framed portrait over the mantel—is the dead husband, who may, or may not, be rocking in his chair and gleefully watching the action.

Much of the credit for this wicked romp goes to Jeff Maione, who provides the technical supervision that causes the chair to rock, the vase to teeter, and the lights and smoke to erupt.

Maione is also the genius behind the period costumes. Tailored by Constance DeSouza, they are perfect depictions of the era, complete with ruffles at the neck for the mother and a spiffy suit for Axel. Allie Alexander is the Stage Manager who keeps the music playing and the action moving.

Director Ross Heath is the mastermind behind this production. He chose the play because of its theme—of parents and children who lie to each other and wear blinders to keep from seeing the truth—and because of the new translation by Joe Martin, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins.

The setting, in a meeting room of DC’s historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, is perfect down to the smallest detail.  The high-ceilinged walls of the room are crowned with moldings.  Red brocade wall paper is framed within picture rails.  There are chandeliers, a clock on the mantel and a 19th century desk to accompany the rocking chair and chaise lounge, both of which figure prominently in the plot.

Faulty acoustics distort some of the dialogue, and the church, according to a representative, is currently in the process of raising money for the repair. In the meantime, toning down the voices, in the scenes where brother and sister are shouting at each other, would help.

If you yearn for a return to old-fashioned drama—the kind where dastardly deeds are revealed and villains are punished—then you’re in for a treat at this rarely-performed classic.

Produced by Arcturus—a relatively little-known professional theater company founded by Heath, its artistic director, just four years ago—the nonprofit group aims at producing plays that deal with sensitive sociological issues.

The company is named for Arcturus—one of the brightest stars in the northwest sky—and may be familiar to movie goers as the setting for Aliens and other science fiction stories.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.


The Pelican plays through May 22, 2016, at Arcturus Theater Company performing at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church – 1313 New York Avenue NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased online.



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